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The name Flat Tops refers to a large region of the White River National Forest northeast of Rifle. Contrary to their name, the western Flat Tops nearest Rifle are not actually flat. More accessible than its wilderness cousin to the east, the western Flat Tops are a rugged paradise for campers, boaters, bikers, hikers, and ATVers.
From Rifle, the area is most commonly accessed via the Buford Road (County Road 245) which climbs up the plateau via the West Elk Creek drainage. Other common access points are Rifle Creek, the Clinetop Road (Main Elk Creek), Trapper’s Lake (via Meeker), and the Coffee Pot Road near Dotsero.
The Flat Tops features what is perhaps the most impressive canyon system in the White River National Forest, projecting like fingers into the high plateau. The White River, Rifle Creek, Elk Creek, and Canyon Creek, all flow out of the western part of the Flat Tops. No Name Creek, Grizzly Creek, Deep Creek, Sweetwater Creek, and the Yampah River all find their headwaters in the eastern sections of the Flat Tops. Deep Creek Canyon, accessible through the community of Dotsero, is a must-see. The canyon ruggedly drops 2300 feet from the rim of the plateau.
Many of the most remote portions of the Flat Tops receive very few human visitors and have been identified by the Colorado Division of Wildlife as an area of extremely high priority habitat. The limestone cliffs in the canyons feature caves that provide habitat for rare bats. Big game populates the area extensively, including bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, and black bear. This part of the White River National Forest is home to Colorado’s largest elk herd.
The Flat Tops’ scenery is outstanding, featuring scattered stands of aspen and scenic alpine meadows. On top of the plateau, the land is a mix of evergreen and aspen forests, small lakes, and large open grassy meadows. Long riparian corridors lead to vast subalpine grasslands.
OHV enthusiasts will love the Blair Mountain Road which bisects the area from east to west. In the fall, the Flat Tops draws hunters from across the country in search of trophy elk. The fishing is excellent too. Native American Utes found the same to be true and there is ample evidence of their use of the area. The ghost town of Carbonate also draws tourists interested in local history.
As you travel further and further to the northeast, you will get closer to the famed Flat Tops Wilderness Area. This non-motorized area offers great fishing, hiking, and horseback riding. It includes the stunning Trapper’s Lake which is surrounded by sheer flat-topped buttes that give the region its name. The wilderness area can be most easily accessed from Rifle by taking Highway 13 to Meeker and then driving deep into the White River drainage.